The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation. The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back! I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.
I remember when I was young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom. When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed. Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.
Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and me to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting. He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room. This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV. The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds. Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other. When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.
Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.
The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test. There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day. This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard. It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.
Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).
That wasn’t the worst of it. Switchman training back then was required every two years. Think about this. I was an electrician for 18 years. During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times! Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures. Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.
During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman. After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears. It made a lot of sense.
We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting. Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.
After an entire day of sitting in a classroom. The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation. They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.
We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary. This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch. They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.
Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer. I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee. He was a trainer in his early 50’s. He had been a safety trainer for years.
Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified. Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.
To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:
As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans. My emphasis was on Adult Education. So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.
I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.
Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid. I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project. PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions. I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day. I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.
I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me. I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested. I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer. It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer. They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth. So needless to say. No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.
I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher. Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions. Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:
At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention! This is on the test!”
There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers. I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training. No one really knew what it was.
While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see. What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was. I had the ball camera in my hand. I was looking for anyone who was dozing off. Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off. Some fighting to keep their eyes open. Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.
I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover. Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
That was the clincher. Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day. No one dared to nod off again. It worked great! When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.
When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken. Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared. Here is a copy of the test they took:
Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this? We wouldn’t think of doing that today.
Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done. When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos. I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.
Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training. When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post. See the post “Power Plant Train Wreck“.
Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”. If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways. Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway. A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.
Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery. I didn’t work at the refinery for many years. When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.
What was happening? A Co-Generation plant was being built there. It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes. Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine. Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs. The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit. So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.
For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out. Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way. You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.
Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online. The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light. You can go for miles without seeing another car.
After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery. There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there. One annoying factor was the hideous smell.
I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street. One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.
A side note…
My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married. Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day. I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.
I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing. Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?). The quality of Life doesn’t get much better. When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life. I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.
My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.
end of side note…
I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important. I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you. It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).
Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon. There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees. Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.
One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.
This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.
When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).
The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction. — Yeah…. comforting huh? Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery. Oh joy.
Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats. It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.
Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils. Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us. We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor. This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.
Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.
When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees. The motor itself was even hotter than that. We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands. Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.
See what I mean?
The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths. Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.
There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job. Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.
This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building. Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.
When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat. During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.
The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens. Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away! Run Away!” Great safety evacuation plan. — Plan of action: “Run!!!”
The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S. This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs. The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.
Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.
Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.
A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections. For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.
I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. There were reasons why I did enjoy it. I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh. I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…). The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.
I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster. I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.
Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends. Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases. I didn’t mind the heat. I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat. What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day? About what they are planning for the weekend? Or the rest of their life?
Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine. Sure. We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference. It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.
In the morning when a Power Plant Man drives through the gate at the plant, with the boilers and smoke stacks looming ahead of them, they know that whatever lies ahead for them can be any one of over 20,000 different Power Plant Man Jobs! Yes. That’s right. There are over 20,000 separate jobs that a person can be assigned on over 1,000 different pieces of equipment.
The bravery brings to mind the “Charge of the Light Brigade” (by Alfred Lord Tennyson), where “…All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred”… only there were about 44 He-men and Women to repair whatever was in need of repair that day. And as in the commemorative poem about the Battle of Balaclava where “… Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the Left of them, Cannon in front of them… Into the Jaws of Death, Into the Mouth of Hell Rode the Six Hundred.” Or 44 in the case of the Power Plant Men and Women.
It is true of the bravery possessed by True Power Plant Men and Women as they go about their daily quest for perfection. Unlike the Charge of the Light Brigade, who through an error in the command structure was ordered to perform a suicide mission, Power Plant Men go into daily battle well prepared using the correct tools, Safety Gear, Clearance Procedures and the knowledge of how to perform any one of the 20,000 jobs that could be assigned to them on any given day. (wait! Did I just create an extremely long run-on sentence? — No wonder I could never get an A in English class!).
As Lord Tennyson Memorialized the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 by writing the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, one day when I showed up to work during the spring of 1998, I was assigned a similar task at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. “What’s that you say? Similar to writing the Charge of the Light Brigade?” Yeah. You heard me. I was given the job of chronicling each and every task that a Power Plant Man or Woman could possibly ever perform at the Power Plant.
For the next three years, I spent 50% of my time at the plant sitting in front of a computer in the Master Print Room (where the master blueprints for the entire plant are kept) entering each task into the program called SAP. You may have heard me mention this program before.
We had started using SAP a year earlier at the Electric Company. The benefit of using this product was that it connected all of the functions of the company together into one application. So, as soon as a Power Plant Man took a part out of the warehouse, it was reflected in the finance system on the Asset Balance sheet. When our time was entered into SAP, the expense was calculated and charged to the actual piece of equipment we had been working on during that day. It gave us a lot of visibility into where and how the company was spending their money.
This became even more useful if we were able to tell SAP more and more about what we did. That was where Ray Eberle and I came in. Ray was assigned to enter all of the Bill of Materials for every piece of equipment at the plant. I was assigned the task of entering all of the possible jobs that could be performed at the plant into SAP.
I entered jobs into a section called “Task Lists”. When I created a task about a specific job, I had to tell SAP all about how to perform that job. This is referred to as “Expert Data” in the world of Enterprise Software. (sorry to bother you with all these boring technical terms).
Each task had to include any Safety Concerns about doing the job. It included a list of instruction manuals for the equipment that needed to be repaired and where to find them. I had to the include the Safety clearance procedure that needed to be performed in order to clear out the equipment before working on it.
The Task also included all the parts that could be used to fix the equipment if something was broken along with the warehouse part number. Then I would add a list of tools that would be used to perform the job. This would include every wrench size, screwdriver, soft choker, come-along, pry bar, and nasal spray that might be needed for the job (well, you never know… there could be job that required the use of nasal spray). Ok. You have me… I only threw that in there because I found this great picture of Nasal Spray on Google Images and this was the only way I think of to show it to you:
Finally I would list each of the steps that a person would take to fix the equipment they were assigned to repair. This was a step-by-step procedure about how to perform the job.
My first thought when I was assigned the job of chronicling every possible job a Power Plant Maintenance Man could perform was “Great! I will get to work on the computer! Everyone will be glad to help me with this task as it will make their lives easier!” Well… After I began the task of collecting information about the jobs, I unexpectedly found a lot of opposition to the idea of listing down each of the steps that a Power Plant Man performed to do their job. — Can you guess why?
Well… Yeah. It’s true that I have an annoying personality, and sometimes I may come across as unpleasant, but that wasn’t the main reason. Here is what happened….
When a Maintenance Order was created, one of the planners, Either Ben Davis (Planner 3) or Tony Mena (Planner 4) would flag the work order as needing a Task created for that particular job.
I would pull up the list of work orders and start creating the task list for that job. I could tell who was assigned to it, so I figured I would just go up to them and ask them how they were going to fix the equipment.
I remember going up to the first person on my list (Earl Frazier) the first day and explaining to him what I was doing. I asked him if he could tell me the steps to replacing the tail roller on belt 18 in the Surge Bin Tower. His response was, “Why should I tell you? You will just put all of that into the computer and then when you have described how to do all of the jobs, they can just get rid of us and hire some contractors to do our jobs.”
Oh… I hadn’t thought about that. It seemed unlikely, because there is a big difference between having a low wage contractor working on something and a dedicated Power Plant Man. There just isn’t any comparison.
In order to write up the task for this job, I just waited until the men were up in the Surge Bin Tower pulling the roller off of the belt, and I went up there and watched them. I took notes of all of the tools and equipment they were using, and asked one of them the steps they were taking to get the new roller up to the tower, and how they were taking the old one out, etc.
Ok… I wasn’t going to do this… but I can feel your anticipation clear from here while I am writing this, that you really want to know what kind of tools it took to pull the roller from the Surge Bin Tower Conveyor belt…. Here is a list of just the tools needed…. just warning you… reading this list of tools just may cause you to drop whatever you are doing and drive out in the country to your nearest Power Plant and apply for a job…. just to warn you… if you don’t think that would be good for you, you may want to skip this next paragraph.
One 9 Foot Extension Ladder. Two 1-1/2 ton come-alongs, and one 3/4 come-along. Two large pry bars, a 15/16 in. and 3/4 inch sockets, an air or electric impact wrench (to be used with the sockets). An 8 foot step ladder. One can of WD-40. a 3/8 in. screwdriver. Oxygen-Acetylene tanks with Torch, a Welding machine, two 8 ft. 2 by 4’s (that’s two pieces of wood). A hammer, a 1/8 in. wrench. One small pipe wrench. One hook to hold up the roller. Three extension cords, with adapters for the coal-handling safety plug-ins. One 4 in. electric grinder. Two 6 in. C Clamps and four 6 ft. Steel Chokers.
I decided that I would make things easier for myself up front by working on all of the electrician maintenance jobs first since I knew how to do most of those already. So, I spent the first year almost solely working on Electrical and Instrument and Control jobs. I could easily write the task lists for these, because I new all of the steps.
For instance… If I needed to take a clearance on the A Tripper Drive motor, I knew that the breaker was on the Motor Control Center (MCC) 13B Cubicle 1C already. I didn’t have to even look that one up. (I often wondered what they were thinking when they put Tripper B on MCC 13B Cubicle 2B. Why not put it in the same place (1C) on the next Motor Control Center? It would make things less confusing — Just things I think about when I’m sitting on my “thinkin’ chair”).
Some tasks were short and easy. Others were novels. Take “Elevator is Malfunctioning” Maintenance order. I included all sorts of troubleshooting tips for that one. I even drew a sort of diagram of relays showing how they should be picked up and dropped out as the elevator went up and down… When the elevator was going up, I put in a table of relay positions like this (U means the relay is picked up, D means it is dropped out). Those names at the top are the names of the relays.
|At Start up||D||U||D||U||D||D||D|
|Slowdown 2 up||D||D||D||D||D||D||U|
|Slowdown 3 up||D||D||D||D||U||D||U|
|At Stop up||D||D||D||D||U||D||D|
I wrote a similar one for when the elevator was going down.
Anyway….I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Ray Eberle and I worked together side-by-side for most of the three years while I was writing the task lists (see the post “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“). After I had written a number of novels about different Electrician jobs in the form of task lists, I began working on the general maintenance tasks.
After a while the Mechanics came around and saw the benefits of the task lists. I remember one of the men who had been the most vocal about not telling me how to do his job (yes. Earl Frazier) came up to me after I had written a task list about changing out the number 2 conveyor belt gear box and he asked me to add another wrench to the list. He said, that they had to go all the way back down the belt at the coal yard, drive back to the shop and retrieve the wrench, all because they hadn’t taken it with them the first time. I added it in a heartbeat and he left smiling.
Every once in a while I would run across a Maintenance Order where I could be somewhat creative. For instance, I had to write a task list about how to inspect the railroad tracks and right-away from the plant to where the tracks entered the town of Red Rock, Oklahoma about 5 miles away.
After explaining how the person connected the railroad truck to the tracks and drove on the tracks toward the growing Metropolis of Red Rock (population 282). I explained about how they were to make sure that all the wildlife was being treated well. I also said that when they arrived at Red Rock, they should go into the feed store and build up our public relations by striking up friendly conversations with the “locals”.
After completing over 10,000 different task lists….. I had begun to get into a routine where I felt like my creativity was becoming a little stifled. Then one day, Ray Eberle suggested that when I’m writing my task lists, I should think about how Planner 4 (Tony Mena) would like to see something a little more exciting than the usual…. “this is how you fix this piece of equipment” task list…
One day I remember writing a task list about something called a “Sparser Bar”. A sparser bar is something that sprays water at the bottom of a sump to stir up the coal when the pump is running so that it doesn’t build up or maybe on a conveyor belt for dust suppression. Anyway… One of the tasks I needed to write was for a person to “create a new Sparser bar”.
I wish I had the exact Task List that I wrote. I know that many years later, Ray Eberle sent me a copy of it when he ran across it one day, but I don’t have it readily available, so I’ll just go by memory (until someone at the plant wants to print it out and send it to me). I don’t know… I may be able to write a better one now…. let me see….
Here are the instruction:
- Cut a one and a quarter inch pipe 30 inches long.
- Drill 1/8 inch holes along the pipe so that you have exactly 24 holes evenly distributed across the pipe leaving at least 3 inches on either side of the pipe.
- If you accidentally drill 23 holes, then you should add an extra hole so that you end up with exactly 24 holes.
- If you drill 25 holes, then you should discard the pipe and start over again.
- Note: Do not drill holes that are larger than 1/8 inches in diameter as this will be too big. If you drill holes bigger than 1/8 inches, then discard the new sparser bar and begin again.
- Another Note: Do not drill the holes smaller than 1/8 inches in diameter. If you drill holes that are smaller than 1/8 inches, then obtain a 1/8 inch drill bit and use that to increase the diameter of the holes that you have drilled.
- Once you have exactly 24 holes in the new Sparser Bar, then rotate the pipe 30 degrees and drill 24 more holes in the exact same positions as the holes that are now 30 degrees from where you are going to drill the new holes.
- Note: Do not drill the second set of holes at a 40 degree angle from the first set of holes as this is not the correct angle. Only drill the holes at a 30 degree angle from the first set of holes.
- Also Note: Do not drill the holes at a 20 degree angle, as this is also not the correct angle from the first set of holes.
- Caution: If you find that you have drilled the second set of holes at an angle other than 30 degrees, please discard the sparser bar and begin again.
- Once you have exactly 48 holes (count them… 24 + 24) in the sparser bar, thread both ends of the pipe.
- After you have threaded both ends of the new sparser bar, put a metal cap on one end of the sparser bar.
- Note: Do Not under any circumstance put a metal cap on both ends of the sparser bar as this will render the sparser bar useless because there will not be any way to attach the sparser bar to the water line.
- Caution: If you find that you have accidentally put a metal cap on both ends of the sparser bar, then remove the metal cap from one end (and only one end) of the sparser bar so that it can be attached to the water line.
- After you have completed creating the new sparser bar with two rows of 24 1/8 in. holes each at an angle of exactly 30 degrees, then using a medium pipe wrench attach the new sparser bar to the water line.
- Align the holes on the sparser bar so that they will have the maximum desired affect when the water is turned on.
See? Only 7 easy steps. I think Tony Mena said he fell asleep trying to read my “Sparser Bar Task List”. I seem to remember Ray Eberle telling me that Tony said, “Kevin’s a nut!”
So, I have one more story to tell you about writing task lists, and then I will conclude this post with the proper conclusive paragraph….
At the plant, every piece of equipment had their own “Cost Center”. This came in handy when you were looking for spending trends and things like that. The structure of the cost center was like this: SO-1-FD-A-FDFLOP — I just made that up. It’s not a real cost center… I just wanted to show you the structure…. The first two characters SO represent the plant. The following “1” represents the unit. We had 2 units. The FD represents a “functional area” like “Force Draft Fan. The “A” represents the number of the piece of equipment, like A or B or C, etc…. depending on how many there are. The FDFLOP is the piece of equipment. In this case it might be a Forced Draft Fan Lube Oil Pump.
I’m explaining this apparently boring aspect of Power Plant Life, because I made an attempt to make it a little more interesting. Here is what I did…. The Ultra Clean water that goes in the boilers and are used to turn the turbine are stored in a couple of large water tanks in front of the main power transformer. The code for their functional area just happened to be: “AM”. So, when you were creating a task for working on a piece of equipment on the first of the two tanks, the Functional area would look like this: SO-1-AM-A…..
See where I’m going with this? It looks like it is saying… “So I am a….” This quickly reminded me of Jim Arnold, who was the Superintendent of Maintenance. The guy that had assigned me to write all of these task lists in the first place. He always seemed like he was king of the jungle, so I thought I would have a little fun with this….
I created a completely new Functional Area Cost Center for this water tank for a non-existent piece of equipment…. I called it the “Gould Outdoor Detector”. So, when I created the Cost Center string, it looked like this: SO-1-AM-A-GOD. For the Gould Outdoor Detector. — I know… I was being rotten.
Then using this cost center (that looked like “So, I am a God”), I created a Task List called: “How to be Superintendent of Maintenance”. I added a lot of steps to the task about how you can humiliate your employees and over work them, and kick them when they are down, and stuff like that. I don’t remember the details. Anyway, that was a lot of fun.
I created task lists up until the day before I left the plant. At my going away party Jim Arnold asked me how many task lists I had created in the last three years… the count was something close to 17,800 task lists. Yeah. That’s right. I wrote over 17,000 descriptions of Power Plant Man jobs in three years. Our plant had over three times more task lists in SAP than the rest of the entire electric company put together.
You can see that I was proud of some, like my the novel I wrote about Elevator Maintenance. You can also tell that working side-by-side with Ray Eberle kept us both entertained during those years. We were the best of friends when I left. I don’t know how many times I just about passed out because I was laughing so hard while we worked together.
If I were to write Power Plant Tasks today, I think I would write the ones that aren’t assigned to a Maintenance Order… they would be more like “How to be a True Power Plant Man”. It would be a novel that would describe the tremendous character of each and every True Power Plant Man and Woman that I learned to love during my stay at the “Power Plant Palace.”
The electricians on our crew must have heard Gary Wehunt say the phrase “…of a morning” a dozen times before someone brought it to his attention. I think it was Andy Tubbs while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Safety Meeting. He said, “What did you just say?” Gary repeated himself, “I do ‘such and such’ of a morning.” “Of a morning? What does that mean?” Gary asked, “What? Of a Morning. Isn’t that right?”
It’s true that there is a certain “Power Plant Speak” that seems unique to people that work in factories, power plants, line crews and other such situations. I can speak only for the power plants where I worked. I would describe the type of speech as “colorful”. Not in a vulgar sort of way, but in a flowery way.
Power Plant Men in general didn’t curse as you may see them depicted in movies. The majority of Power Plant Men I worked with had too much respect for each other to use foul language, and those that did usually apologized when something slipped out. Saying things like, “Sorry Kev, you had to hear that.”
I was watching a show the other day on TV with my wife and it showed a group of men using vulgar language while talking about women. I told my wife, I have worked around men in a number of Power Plants and I have never heard someone talk disrespectfully about women like that in the workplace. For the most part, the men and women at a Power Plant are the cream of the crop when it comes to decency.
The people who had a tendency to use foul language were the “old-timers”. Especially if they were an old-timer supervisor. It seems that the culture before the 80’s was that using foul language was a normal way of communicating. Even upper level supervisors would yell at people using curse words that today would seem very inappropriate. I just caught the tail end of that, and it seemed to come mainly from the construction hands that were building the plant. See the post: “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“.
When I say that Power Plant Speak is colorful, I mean that the words they use are… unique.
Sometimes Power Plant Men used inappropriate words without knowing what they meant. When something isn’t working properly, a Power Plant Man may say that it is “Gilflirted”. This was a common word used by Power Plant Men, but few of them actually knew the exact meaning. When Martin Prigmore told Diana Brien and me what it really meant one day, I didn’t believe him (yes. “me” is the proper word to use in this sentence. Not “I”).
He said his grandfather had told him what it meant in relation to a horse. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is exactly what Martin said. To us, Gilflirted just meant, “It’s fouled up.” Almost no one knew the wiser. (Before you go looking for the exact meaning, let me just say that it is a disgusting word. You should probably pass this one up. I wish I didn’t know). I remember my mom telling my sister when we were young not to use words and phrases when she didn’t understand the meaning. Now I know why.
I used to keep a dictionary of words that Charles Foster, my first electric foreman and my foremost friend used that were “variations” of words that he meant to say.
Charles knew that he didn’t say some words correctly, and he especially didn’t write them well. He had dyslexia so he was never a good speller. I would check his spelling before he would send an important memo to someone. Here is a post about when we figured out that Charles was Dyslexic: “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“.
Here are some of the words Charles would use: Sipherned: This meant to Siphon something. Dasunul: This meant Decimal. Telepoly (prounounced similar to Monopoly): This meant Telepathy (this was my favorite). When we would both be thinking the same thing at the same time (which was often), Charles would say, “We’ve got that Telepoly going on here.”
Here are some more words…. Litatur: Literature. Tindency: Tendency. Stratety: Strategy. etc…I think you get the point.
So, when the company offered a course called: Practical English and the Command of Words… We jumped on it. Maybe this way we could learn us some good English!
This is probably the best English course I ever had…. um… I mean “took”. Geez. You can see, I learned a lot…. I still have a tough time when it comes to writing run-on sentences. This course has 48 lessons each of which would make a great Monday Morning Safety Meeting Topic… only it doesn’t deal with Safety, unless… you could argue… It is a safer workplace when people can communicate better….. okay. Yeah. I know. That’s stretching it. But it would be fun. It was created by the “English Language Institute of America, Inc.”
Each topic in this course had an interesting title, like “Negatives from Positives”. Or “Dangerous Resemblances”… Sounds like a murder mystery. How about “Perplexing Plurals”? “Fragrance, Odor or Aroma?” — Yeah. The title of an English class.
I had a couple of takeaways from this course that I still remind myself today. The first one is to not end a sentence with a preposition. Because a Preposition implies that something is supposed to follow…. I remember I used to bug my foreman Alan Kramer when he would end sentence with “….at”, which seemed to be the most common preposition ending word at the plant. “Where’re you at?” I used to repeat the word “At” whenever Alan would finish a sentence with “At”. I know I was driving him up the wall. The second one was “….to”. Like “Where’re you going to?”
In order to get around ending a sentence with the word “At”, I remember the foremen trying to change the sentence like this…. “Where’re you at… Kevin?” That’s great! The sentence no longer ended with a preposition, but it still wasn’t “King’s English” was it? <smile>
The easy solution to this is to stop the contraction “Where’re you” and spread it out to make “Where are you?” No need for the “At”. The contraction is what confuses the sentence. You can say “Where are you going?” instead of “Where’re you going to?” Just don’t contract “where’re” and drop the preposition.
Okay. Another lesson about prepositions is that if you can’t just drop it, then you are probably using the wrong words and you need to reword the entire sentence… Take this sentence… “Who do you work for?” You wouldn’t just say, “Who do you work?” That’ doesn’t sound right… “Work” is not the right word. What you are really asking is, “Where are you employed?” — oh… sorry for the lesson…. English class is dismissed… by the way… in all my years in school, I never made an A in English. The best grade I had was a B+.
The second “takeaway” from this course was to never use the word “Get” or “Got” or one of their other words like “getting” or”gotten”, etc. There is always a better word. “Get” could mean too many different things. “I’ve got it.” What does that mean? I figured it out? I found it? I retrieved it? or even… “Enough already!” How about “I have it”. there’s a contraction again “I’ve” that has caused a person to throw in an extra word.
Whenever you want to use the word “Get” stop and ask yourself, what do I really want to say. there is always a better word. It is annoying because script writers for television shows should learn this lesson. Every day (almost), I hear someone on TV say, “I’ve got to have it!” (instead of “I need it”) or some such thing. Once you start listening for it, you hear it everywhere. Oh. Sorry… I did say… English Class dismissed… didn’t I?
I’m not sure how many Power Plant Men took the English course, but when it was over, once while walking through the Welding Shop at the beginning of break time I heard out of the corner of my ear, one welder asking the other…. “Tea?” My first thought was “Geez! They really took this “English” stuff seriously… until I heard the follow-up question…. “Sweet or UnSweet?”
There was another course that I think every person at the plant had to take. It was called “The Path To Dialogue”. Well, this says “The Path Of Dialogue”, but it seemed like we always called it the “Path To Dialogue”, which seems more like going down a path, I suppose.
The course talked about each section of that diagram on the first page. Let me blow up the diagram for you… (No! Not like that!).
Down at the bottom, you can see the different ways that people use to try to kill the conversation. Recognize any of these? One side is withdrawing and the other side is, “Meet me out behind the barn (or in the elevator, as the case may be).” The course started with the bottom of the pyramid and worked upward.
The course actually taught the student how to ask questions in a way that promoted a dialogue instead of working to crush it. This is a very useful course that was given to us by the Praxis Institute in 1995. Everyone took it, but not everyone bought into the idea.
Just as during the Confined Space training, a few people who were in upper management (like Jim Arnold for instance) didn’t think things like this applied to them. “A ‘Path To Dialogue’ is fine and dandy for the peons that work for me, but all I need to do is tell you what to do and the discussion is over.” The rest of us learned some very valuable lessons from this course. Oh. Just as a reminder… Here is Jim Arnold in all of his glory:
Years later, what I learned in this course comes in handy in my job today. I run into a lot of things like “Monologuing” and “Hiding”. The worst one is “Politicking”. I still have to check myself to make sure I’m not doing the same thing.
I have always thought that the True Power Plant Men were made from “The Right Stuff”. Taking these courses didn’t make them better people. They were great men and women all along. These courses just helped them express themselves better so that other people could understand what great people worked at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
The thought of educating skilled labor to be better speakers and to give them the tools to communicate better with each other may slip the minds of plant managers around the globe. I think that when a company steps up to the plate and shows that educating their own employees is an important part of their culture it tells the workers that they are respected.
The Electric Company always had a pro-education policy. They would pay for your school as long as it had something to do with working for an Electric Company. I had taken advantage of this benefit many times. I took a lot of Vo-tech courses since we had a nice Vo-tech school just down the road from my house.
Around the year 1995, this policy became even more generous. They said that they would pay 100% of the tuition and fees for employees attending an accredited school, and they would even pay 75% of the books required for the courses. They even broadened the types of degrees you could take to almost anything.
Living in a college town, I found this to be a very enticing proposition. I didn’t act on it right away. I suppose I was waiting for a certain catalyst to kick me out the door.
The catalyst came one day during the spring of 1997 when my wife Kelly, who was working on a Masters for Healthcare Administration at Oklahoma State University, came home one night from class and said, “Kevin. We had a speaker in class today who owns a software company here in Stillwater. He described the type of employee he wants to hire, and he described you perfectly. You need to go back to school and get a degree in Computer Science! What do you think?”
I had to think about this…. Going back to college, while working is a difficult task. I did that before when I obtained my Masters in Religious Education from Loyola a few years earlier. That took three years. I always loved programming computers, only I had considered it more of a hobby than a job. This would require a full four years of school if it was even possible, since I would have to work it around my job. All of these questions went through my mind…
I thought and thought. Then I thought about it some more…. Then…. 5 seconds after Kelly had asked me what I thought…. I had made up my mind…. “Okay. I’ll do it.” I’ll tell you more about that experience in some other posts.
When I finally was enrolled, it turned out that since I had already taken English back when I was earning my degree in Psychology in 1982, I didn’t have to take it again! That was good… I was ready this time though. I had taken the “Power Plant King’s English!” It entitled me to continue working at the “Power Plant Palace” just up the road north of town.
I spent 12 weeks in Oklahoma City in 1996 working in an office building while the Power Plant Men came to the rescue and caused a culture shock for some who had never experienced a group of Power Plant Men so closely packed in an office cubicle before. The effect can almost be the same as if you have too many radioactive particles compressed together causing a chain reaction ending in a tremendous explosion. Having survived this experience I became intrigued with the idea of working in an office on a computer instead of carrying a tool bucket up 25 flights of stairs to fix the boiler elevator.
Our team had been in Oklahoma City when we were converting the Electric Company in Oklahoma to a new financial and planning system known as SAP. See the post: “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“. One other person from out plant was in Oklahoma City for the entire 9 months it took to roll out SAP. That was Linda Dallas, our HR Supervisor at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Linda Dallas was on the core SAP team which was a coveted spot for one not so obvious reason. The few people that were on the core team were learning how to implement SAP in a fairly large public electric company. The consulting company Ernst and Young were teaching them how to build SAP screens and configure the application as well as how to run a large project. — Do you see where I’m going?
I went out and bought a book on programming SAP myself just in case I had a chance to play around with it when we were in Oklahoma City. I read the book, but unfortunately the opportunity to mess with SAP never came up (or did it?).
Mark Romano, the engineer that was coordinating our efforts during the project tried to have me assigned to the testing team for SAP, but the SAP guys said they didn’t need anyone else…. For more about Mark Romano, read this post: “Power Plant Marine Battles with God and Wins“. Consequently, when Mark told me that the testing team positions were just as coveted as the core team and they didn’t want an outsider coming in and showing them up, I understood.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet…. SAP was an up and coming terrific software package that took practically your entire company’s computer activities and put them in one all encompassing application. People experienced in SAP were far and few between, so anyone looking for people with SAP experience were finding the pickins rather slim (as in Slim Pickens). Because of this, most of the people involved in the core SAP implementation could basically write their ticket when it came to finding a job with a company trying to implement SAP in 1996-97.
I thanked Mark for putting in a good word for me with the testing team. I also told him that the first time I actually am able to use SAP, I will break it within 10 minutes just so the testing team can see how it’s done. — I had a lot of experience with “Negative testing” as it is called in IT. That is when you do what you can to try to break the application.
I like the word “consequently” today, so I’m going to use it again…. Consequently, when Linda Dallas came back to our plant to show us all how to use SAP, here is what happened….
We went to the small conference room where I had setup about 15 computers all hooked up to the company’s Intranet. The team from Oklahoma City had actually brought the computers. I had just run all the network cables to the room so they could train people 15 at a time. The trainers wanted to “lock down” the computers so that they only had SAP on them and not other things like “Solitaire” that might distract the Power Plant Trainees.
Here is what happened when I showed up for my class…. Linda Dallas was teaching it along with one other guy from Corporate Headquarters…. I’ll call him “Jack”… for various reasons, but mainly because I can’t remember his name… Jack told us that the computers we were using were stripped down so that it didn’t have games like Minesweeper and Solitaire on them, (as did all the regular Windows NT computers).
The first thing I did when he told us that was to browse over to the electric shop computer through the network and copy the minesweeper and the solitaire games from the computer in the electric shop to my training computer….. See how rotten I used to be (yeah… used to be… Huh? What’s that?)… Then I opened Solitaire and started playing it while they explained how to go into SAP and start doing our jobs.
They showed us the Inventory section. That had all the parts in the company in it. That was the part of the application I had helped implement in our small way.
When they showed us the inventory section, I realized right away how I could break SAP, so I proceeded to open 10 different screens of the SAP client, and began some crazy wildcard searches on each one of them. The application came to a grinding halt. (for any developers reading this… let’s call it… “SQL Injection”).
Linda, who was trying to show us how to go from screen-to-screen suddenly was staring at a screen that was going no where. She tried to explain that they were still having some performance issues with the application….
I just stared at my own computer screen trying to figure out if I had a red ten to put on the black jack…. when a red-faced Jack came around the tables and saw me playing Solitaire. I just smiled up at him and he had a confused look on his face as we waited for the screen on the projector to begin working again.
I knew of course what had happened and after about 5 minutes of everyone’s screen being locked up, the application finally began working again and the training continued. — I was happy. I had completed my testing that the testing team didn’t think they needed. Of course, I did it to honor Mark Romano’s failed attempt to have me moved to the SAP testing team.
A couple of years later when I was working with Ray Eberle on a Saturday (as we were working 4 – 10s, and rotated onto a Saturday once every 4 weeks), I showed him how I could lock up SAP for the entire company any time I wanted. Since few people were working on Saturday, I figured I could show him how it was done without causing a raucous. It took about 35 seconds and SAP would be down for as long as I wanted. There was a way to prevent this… but…. If the testers never test it, they would never tell the developers to fix it (I’m sure they have fixed it by now… that was 18 years ago).
Anyway, the story about implementing SAP isn’t really what this post is about. It is just the preamble that explains why in the spring of 1997, Linda Dallas left as the Supervisor of HR at our plant. She found another job in Dallas with some of the other core SAP team members implementing SAP.
When the job opening for Linda Dallas’s job came out at our plant, I figured that since I met the minimum qualification, I might as well apply for it. Why not. It would mean putting away my tool bucket and working on the computer a lot more, which was something I was interested in since my experience a few months earlier when I was working at Corporate Headquarters.
I knew right away that no one would really take my job application seriously. I had all the computer related skills. I had a degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola with a focus on adult education. That wasn’t really the point. I had never been a clerk.
The natural progression of things meant that the only “real” possible pool of applicants were the women clerks in the front office. Specifically Louise Kalicki. Her desk was closest to Linda Dallas’s office, so, in a sense, she was “next-in-line”.
Even though I knew that the plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold the Maintenance Supervisor would never want me on the “staff”, I went ahead and applied for the job anyway. I figured, it was worth the experience to apply and go through the interview process even though I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
I think Louise and I were the only two to apply for the job. Maybe Linda Shiever did as well, as she had the most seniority at the plant. Linda was actually the first person hired at the plant when it was first built. Louise had been filling in for Linda Dallas for the past year while Linda Dallas had been in Oklahoma City working on SAP, so she was really a “shoe-in” for the job.
When I went up to the interview, the first thing I had to do was take a timed typing test to see if I could type 35 words a minute (I could type 70). I had dressed up for the interview so that when I walked into the plant manager’s office, Bill Green and Jim Arnold had a little “Hee Haw” about seeing me without coal dust and fly ash coming out of my nose and ears. I told them that “I can get cleaned up when I needed to” (notice that I used the word “get” and ended my sentence with a preposition… just so they didn’t think I was too stuck up. See the post: “Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English“).
No one was surprised when Louise Kalicki was promoted to HR Supervisor. She was probably the best choice when you think about it. She had a better relationship with Bill Green and Jim Arnold than I did and a good part of the job was working with those two rascals (oh… did I actually call them rascals? Bless their hearts).
This was right around the time that I had made my decision to go back to school to work toward a degree in Computer Science. Working with computers was really my passion.
I have an interesting way of making decisions about what I’m going to do with my life. I let certain events help make the decisions, instead of just jumping right in. I had decided (knowing that it was pretty much a safe bet) that if I didn’t get the job as the HR Supervisor, then I would go down to Oklahoma State University just a few miles from my house and enroll in the Arts and Science College and work on a degree in Computer Science.
I made a lot of decisions that way. I figured that if I was meant to do something, then it would work out that way. If not, then, fine, I would go a different route.
Ok. One more side story about working with Ray Eberle and SAP (See the post: “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“)… This happened some time around the year 2000.
SAP had this icon of a drip of water dropping and causing a ripple of waves….
When the application was thinking, this picture was in the upper right hand corner and it was animated, so that the water rippled out as the water dripped. That way you could tell the difference between the application being stuck and just thinking.
This wasn’t just an animated GIF as we might have today. It was actually a series of bitmap pictures that were all strung together into one file. Once I figured this out, I used Paint to modify the picture. I created three new versions…. The first one had a small ship with sails sailing across the rippling water. The second one had a yellow fish that would leap out of the water over and over.
It was the third picture that was my masterpiece. I reversed the flow, so that instead of the water rippling out, it came in as if it was a whirlpool sucking things down. Then I added a small picture of our HR Supervisor’s face being sucked down into the whirlpool.
Then I created a small application that allowed people to change their water rippling animated picture to any of the four (with the regular picture being the fourth option) that they wanted quickly and easily. I know the women in the front office liked the one with the HR supervisor being sucked down the whirlpool the best. I won’t mention who they were, but by the following two pictures, you may be able to guess….
I would think that Bill Green would have liked the sailing ship the best since he liked to sail…. though… for some reason, I never made it around to install my “SAP add-on” on his computer (or Louise Kalicki’s for that matter, since she was the HR Supervisor). Most of the Power Plant Men probably would like the fish jumping out of the water, since they liked fishing. — I know… I know… I was being rotten… but it was fun.
Ok. End of the Side Story and end of the post.
Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb. I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years. Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean. Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion. After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.
When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be. Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.
The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“). It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?” Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.
We had a salesman of our brand of Dust Collectors come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust. Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:
We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up. Ouch. We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems. Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.
The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain. He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.
When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation. the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water. I hadn’t seen them actually running for years. They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.
Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!
We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job. They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside. When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors. The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.
You can see that the dust collector is very large. You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.
When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.” “Wait! What did he say?” What pulse?”
He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval. If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well. The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free. We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors. This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.
Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence. The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….” pointing his finger at the page. We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual? We have an instruction manual?”
We said, “Class dismissed! Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.
In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage. I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:
When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running. coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal. Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain. This was a typical day in the coal handling system. Coal dust everywhere.
I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.
When we arrived there was no pulsing. The instrument air was on all the time. So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode. The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute). As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt). Nothing was coming out of the chute.
As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off. When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed. I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.
When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling. They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up. We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle. We felt like cheering!
We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working. This meant a lot more than a working dust collector. This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.
In other words. The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed. And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet. It pays to read the manual.
Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.
That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper. This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.
You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile. That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos. The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.
We still had a problem with the dumper. The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”. Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear. We had to come up with another solution.
Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”. That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place. This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.
A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.
They showed us something called: The “Dust Shark”.
The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through. This was the solution for the dumper. It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.
The task force was considered a success. I have two side stories before I finish with this post.
The first is about Danny Cain.
Danny was a heavy smoker. He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college. Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.
I told Danny that one day. I was always one to discourage people from smoking…. He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it. He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.
I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him. The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas). The monitor, as expected began beeping…
What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well. In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low. It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again. Danny didn’t want to see that.
I said, “Danny? Carbon Monoxide Poisoning! Hello???!!!”
When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs). I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this. Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…
When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks. He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board. I said… “wait… wait… let’s just start programming the thing.” He told me that wasn’t the way we did things. First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.
The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.
I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go. Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done. In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.
End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….
I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up. It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier. No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded. The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building. No injuries or deaths. The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.
I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one. I don’t know. This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:
I was five years old the first time I witnessed a shootout between two people the summer of 1966. One person was a law enforcement officer and the other person was apparently a criminal. The criminal who had run out into the middle of the street decided to stand his ground and turned around to face the Sheriff who had been calling to him to stop… “In the name of the law” I think he said. They paused for a moment, and then in a flurry of bullets the criminal fell to the ground. The crowd that had gathered around in that brief moment clapped.
I had never seen a dead body before that day.
The scene I had witnessed happened on the north side of Oklahoma City, just across I-35 from a restaurant called “The Surrey House”. It was a famous restaurant in Oklahoma City since the mid 1950’s, known for having the best pies around. We had traveled all the way from Stillwater Oklahoma to eat at this restaurant several times in the past 2 years before this incident occurred.
That particular day after we had eaten, we took a short jog across I-35 to go for a stroll down a street that had a western feel to it, much like the stockyard area of Fort Worth, Texas. At that time, this particular stretch of the Interstate Highway was different than any Interstate I had ever seen in my five informative years of existence.
You could pull off into the restaurant without taking a “formal” exit. You could even cross the highway at a couple of places by just jogging across the center median and pulling off the side of the road directly into another place of business.
As a side note:
In 1966, this particular section of I-35 was under construction. It was still under construction when we left Oklahoma in 1967 to move to Columbia, Missouri. Oh… and it was still under construction when we returned to Oklahoma in 1978. In fact. This particular stretch of I-35 was under construction for about 33 years. It was known as a “Boondoggle”. It was the laughing stock of the Interstate Highway system. It did look nice when it was finally finished some time around 1990.
At This time this small stretch of highway was still referred to as Route 66.
End Side note.
As fate would have it, August 14, 1999, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was 9, we returned to the same street where I had witnessed the shootout 33 years earlier. The buildings were much the same, only they had a better coat of paint than when I was a child. As fate would also have it, another shootout occurred very similar to the one I had witnessed as a boy. The players were obviously not the same as before, but it did involve another lawman and another criminal. The criminal ended up with his gun being shot out of his hand then he was dragged off in handcuffs. Again, the crowd that had gathered clapped.
Here is a picture of the street where the shootout occurred:
When I was a child and we entered this small town across from the Surrey House Restaurant, this is what the entrance looked like:
When I returned with my children, here is closer to what it looked like:
As you can tell by now, I am talking about an amusement park. As a child, it was more of a place where you just strolled around and looked at the western stores and the people dressed up in western outfits, who would occasionally break out into shootouts and play tunes on tinny pianos in mocked up saloons.
When we returned 33 years later, Frontier City had turned into a full fledged amusement parks with roller coasters and water rides. It still had the occasional shootouts that would spill out into the streets when some Black Bart character would call the Sheriff out into the street for a one-on-one “discussion”.
I suppose you think I must have slipped off my usual “Power Plant” topic. Actually, the day my children were standing there watching the shootout at Frontier City, all of the people standing with us worked at the Electric Company. Frontier City had been closed to the public on August 14 (and 21) and was only allowing Power Plant Men and other Electric Company employees in the gate on those dates.
There was a sort of a rivalry within the Electric Company that I had found existed about 3 years earlier in 1996 when some lineman were at our plant from what might be called the T&D department. This stands for Transmission and Distribution. In other words, the department where the linemen and transformer people worked.
One of the linemen told me while we were working in the substation that the company really didn’t need Power Plants anymore. When I asked him why, he explained that since Electricity is bought on the open market now, the company could buy their electricity from anybody. It didn’t matter who. The company didn’t need to own the plants.
Not wanting to start a “turf war”, I kept to myself the thought that the Electric Company that produces the electricity is the one making the money just as much as the one with the wire going to the house. Do you think you can just buy electricity as cheap as you can from our power plants? After all, our electric company could produce electricity cheaper (at the time) than any other electric company our size in the country.
So, when we were walking around Frontier City going from ride to ride, I half expected to see a mock shootout between a Power Plant Man and a Lineman. Fortunately, I don’t think one incident of that nature occurred that day. If you keep reading, you may find out why.
Some time in mid-July the employees of the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma received a letter in the mailbox inviting them to spend a day at Frontier City. You might think this is a misuse of Electric Company funds to pay for the use of an amusement park for two days just for your employees… After all, this came out of someone’s electric bill.
You will notice on the invite below that the company was thanking everyone for their hard work and long hours and for working safely through a difficult time.
Wouldn’t you know I would keep a copy….
You may wonder what difficult time an Electric Company in Oklahoma could possibly face, and I suppose the first thing that comes to many people’s minds are “tornadoes”. In this case you would be right. We had a very trying year with the storms over Oklahoma that had ripped through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.
We call this a tragedy, and it was. Over 3,000 homes had nothing but concrete slabs where their homes used to be, as an F5 tornado tore through populated areas in the Oklahoma City area. Throughout all this destruction 36 people lost their lives. This is a very small number considering the amount of destruction.
The evening of May 3 at my home outside Stillwater, Oklahoma when I had arrived home from work, I swept the bugs and dust out of our storm shelter, which was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube with 8 inch reinforced concrete walls buried in the ground outside my bedroom window. The top of it looked like a patio with a big stainless steel plated wooden door. I stocked the storm shelter with some fresh water and snacks.
We knew tornadoes were heading our way. The weather experts on KFOR and KWTV in Oklahoma City were telling us all day the paths where tornadoes were likely to appear. The majority of the people in Central Oklahoma were bracing themselves for tornadoes all afternoon. With experts like Gary England, Oklahoma City usually found themselves well warned when tornadoes were on their way.
My wife was working as a Charge Nurse at the Stillwater Medical Center. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bedroom watching the F5 tornado entering Oklahoma City. The tornadoes had traveled 85 miles from Lawton Texas, growing as they moved across the state.
As the tornado tore through large residential areas in Oklahoma City I called my daughter, Elizabeth (Ebit) into my room and with tears in my eyes I told her we needed to pray for the people in Oklahoma City because this tornado we were watching on TV was destroying hundreds of people’s lives right before our eyes.
Less than an hour later we entered our own storm shelter as another F5 tornado was within 5 miles of our house. My wife, Kelly was still at the hospital moving patients to safety in the basement where we had taken shelter from tornadoes when we lived on 6th street.
We spent that night going in and out of our storm shelter as tornadoes passed close by. The F5 tornado that came close to our house took out the High Voltage power lines coming from our Power Plant to Oklahoma City for a 10 mile stretch.
There were a total of 74 tornadoes that night in Oklahoma City and Kansas.
The Electric Company was scrambling to supply power to a city that had been crippled by a tornado 5 miles wide. We still had one high voltage line on the 189 KV substation intact where we could funnel electricity to the rest of the state that still had an intact transmission system.
The Oklahoma Electric Company had more experience with tornado damage than any other company in the country. They often donated their time helping out other companies in their time of need.
With the help of electric companies from nearby states, electricity was restored as quickly as possible. The men and women who work for the Electric Company in Oklahoma are the real heroes of the wild west. It is the lineman that is called out in an emergency like this.
Linemen work until the job is complete when an emergency like this occurs. Sometimes they are on the job for days at a time, resting when they can, but not returning to the comfort of their own bed until power is turned on for the Million plus customers that they serve. The lineman had completed their work repairing this natural disaster without any serious injuries.
That day at Frontier City, the heroes of the day were the T&D crews that spent a significant part of their lives working to repair the damage caused by these tornadoes. Even though there may have been some sort of rivalry between T&D and Power Supply (that is, the Power Plant employees), any Power Plant Man that came across one of the T&D linemen that day at Frontier City, tipped their hat to them (if not literally, then through their expression of gratitude).
As grateful as the Power Plant Men were for the hard work and dedication of the linemen during that time of emergency, the people who were truly grateful were the countless families who had their power restored in a timely manner. Sitting in your house in the dark trying to find out if another tornado is on the way or wondering if the food in your refrigerator is going to spoil, and water is going to be restored is a frightening thought when your family is counting on you to make everything right.
Ticker tape parades are reserved for returning soldiers from victories. Invitations to the White House are usually extended to dignitaries and distinguished individuals and basketball teams. Statues are raised for heroes who have made their mark on the nation. Pictures of our Founding Fathers are placed on our currency. All of these are great ways to honor our heroes.
Power Plant Men and Linemen do not need this sort of gesture to know that what they do for mankind is a tremendous benefit to society. If you would like to honor some great heroes of our day, then if you are ever travelling through Oklahoma and you see a bright orange truck travelling down the highway with an Electric Company Logo on it, then give them a honk and a wave. They will know what you mean. When they wave back, know that you have just been blessed by some of the greatest men and women of our generation.
I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph. When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck. The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.
The original chart I made was in pencil. Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:
Now study this chart for a minute…. The youngest person in the plant was 31. There was one. The oldest were four who were 56. If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or 58% of the entire Power Plant population. So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement. 35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.
How did this happen? How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years? This happened because of two situations.
The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare. The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired. Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired. So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.
There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee. I went through all of them. Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer. None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore. This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life. It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.
I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road. Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation. I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.
The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed. Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more. A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.
As a side note:
When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80. That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service…. That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.
Sure. Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire. He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress… Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind. I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).
Back to the story:
The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls. There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department. He was 31 years old when he was hired. I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.
The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience. The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company. In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring. In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.
The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant. They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts. Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance. A training program to head off an impending train wreck.
I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked. Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training. All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.
Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997. I was ready for this one. I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education. I was the computer whiz at the plant. I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.
The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants. I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree. If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.
Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it. My education could wait. I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.
I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults. I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“). I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.
I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.
The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver. I just added the colors to it.
Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job. I was custom designed for it. When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved. This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree. The job was given to Stanley Robbins. Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.
One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you. They were chosen by someone else. Through no fault of their own. This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.
So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard. Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints. I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.
About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out. He wanted Stanley to read it. I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.
I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic. I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:
And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:
Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew. What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn. I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books. I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books. — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.
Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that. I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.
With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor. He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position. He stated that to me over and over. I was glad for Stanley.
I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility. I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001. That is another story for a later time.
Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000. With additional cost for each module that was added. Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.
The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant. So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc. Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.
Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them. The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.
I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information. We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.
After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.
The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant. I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not. I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.